UC Backs Affirmative Action in Supreme Court Case


Kelsey Knorp
National Beat Reporter

Top University of California officials supported affirmative action admissions policies last week in a brief submitted to the U.S. Supreme Court favoring such practices at the University of Texas.

UC President Janet Napolitano and all 10 chancellors across the system filed a “friend of the court” amicus curiae brief on Mon., Nov. 2, the deadline for submission in the case of snubbed applicant Abigail Fisher v. the University of Texas at Austin. The brief states that without race-conscious admissions policies, the ability of public institutions to promote diversity on their campuses is substantially limited.

This argument dates back to a 1996 California ballot proposition that amended the state constitution to ban the use of policies which “discriminate against, or grant preferential treatment to” applicants on the basis of race, sex, ethnicity or national origin.

“The University of California belongs to the people of California, and race-blind admissions have curbed our ability to fully engage the learning potential found among this state’s diverse population,” Napolitano said in a press release.

Fisher and fellow plaintiff Rachel Michalewicz, who is also white, filed their complaint in 2008 after they were denied admission to UT Austin, citing the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment as justification. The United States District Court ruled in favor of the university in 2009 under a precedent set by Grutter v. Bollinger, a 2003 Supreme Court case that upheld the affirmative action admissions policy of the University of Michigan Law School.

Upon appeal to the Fifth Circuit appellate court, UT Austin’s admissions policy was again ruled legal. The case made its way to the Supreme Court for the first time in Feb. 2012, to be heard later that year, and by June 2013 the justices had voided the Fifth Circuit decision in a 7-1 decision and remanded the case to the appellate court on the grounds that it had not applied “strict scrutiny” in its initial ruling. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was the lone dissenter and cited the school’s prioritization of Texan applicants who graduated in the top 10 percent of their high school classes, regardless of race, as sufficient evidence of non-discrimination against white students like Fisher.

According to the opinion issued by Justice Anthony Kennedy, the lower court had not properly examined evidence to indicate that UT Austin’s admissions policy was “narrowly tailored” enough to reap educational benefits from greater diversity. Justice Antonin Scalia concurred in more strictly constitutional terms, arguing that the U.S. Constitution forbids any kind of race-based discrimination and that this principle should not exclude public education.

The Fifth Circuit Court once again upheld the university policy, as of July 2014. “It is equally settled that universities may use race as part of a holistic admissions program where it cannot otherwise achieve diversity,” the majority decision read.

After a failed request for a rehearing in the Fifth Circuit, Fisher appealed the decision once more, and in June the Supreme Court agreed to revisit the case on Dec. 9. The ruling could have a meaningful impact on California’s policies as well.

“We are committed to serving California’s educational needs,” Napolitano said in the press release. “Ensuring campuses enable meaningful interactions among students of different backgrounds is key to this mission.”

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